Mike Conley and Marc Gasol play the most underrated two-man game in basketball.
That was the take from Kellymelvina this week, an author over at SB Nation companion blog Grizzly Bear Blues.
Dubbed "The most unheralded duo in the league," the piece itself serves as a convincing visual breakdown of how the two play off each other: recognizing different defensive schemes and adapting both as the screener and the ball handler.
Within the post, ‘Kelly’ shows how decisions are made: when Conley should give up the ball and when to keep it. More importantly, the post shows how effective Gasol is in deciding when to step back for a jumper and when to slip to the basket.
Another post on GBB, seemingly as an extension of the piece about Conley and Gasol, was about the best and worst two-man combinations for the Griz. Joe Mullinax breaks down the more unconventional pairings in Memphis to watch (or not watch for).
From Jerryd Bayless to Mike Miller to Nick Calathes, players were paired to see where the most offensive production may come from, and where it may end. These are the types of decisions new head coach David Joerger will have to make this upcoming season.
The "two-man game," at least on the offensive side, is as important as ever. Combining the individual skills of players in isolation, less leniency on physicality and possibly the oldest play in basketball—the pick-and-roll—two teammates playing off each other is a clear commitment made by NBA teams.
These are all traits embodied by the Grizzlies, especially when it comes to Gasol and Conley.
The obvious pairing analysts and fans look at with the Portland Trail Blazers is LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. And, like Conley and Gasol, the pick-and-roll is an essential part of their success.
Offensively, their games seem to match well. Lillard’s shooting ability makes it difficult for a defender to commit to going under an Aldridge screen, and he is capable of turning the corner if the defender tries to fight over the top. Additionally, with Aldridge’s lethal combination of range and back-to-the-basket efficiency, the pick-and-roll can often become a pick-and-pop on the fly.
If executed correctly, one of the two is bound to get an uncontested shot. Now heading into year two of the Lillard-Aldridge combo on offense, teams are apt to dread how to defend against these two.
However, Dame and LA might not be the most interesting or important twosome on the court this year. Yes, there are other questions about how Mo Williams can mesh with Lillard, or if Nicolas Batum can play any two-man game with Damian, or even if Thomas Robinson can fit as a backup big.
There may be another pairing, though, that is most important.
And it’s on the other side of the court.
The Blazers brought Robin Lopez to the team almost exclusively to add another dimension to the defensive scheme. At Media Day, Aldridge spoke to the importance of having a guy like Lopez on the team, specifically at the defensive end.
"I just want a big to play with," Aldridge said. "I feel like I can go to the next level playing alongside him because he's going to block shots. If he doesn't block it, I can come block it."
This is now a defensive unit that has more potential than others of the current Blazer era. Aldridge referenced the hustle of J.J. Hickson last year, but still noted he was undersized. He also talked about Joel Pryzbilla, Marcus Camby and Greg Oden, all players that were either at the end of their careers or could never stay on the court.
The defensive end is where the Blazers need the most dramatic improvement. The team was 26th last year in Defensive rating, determined by points allowed per 100 possessions. Only Cleveland, New Orleans, Sacramento and Charlotte were worse.
Much of that inefficiency goes to the youth on the perimeter, but a lot goes to the lack of size on the inside. Even Wesley Matthews, a wing player, said at Media Day that having a more stable big man will help him a lot defensively.
Aldridge’s point that he’s also never played with a guy quite like Lopez, or at least on a consistent basis, is well-taken. If the two can create a chemistry on the defensive end, it could (and should) provide the type of impact the team needs to be successful.
So while teams and analysts are dissecting Lillard and Aldridge on the offensive end, maybe they should instead be paying attention to the Blazers’ bigs on the other side of the court.
If they can develop together, that tandem could be the most important Portland puts on the floor all year.